Sunday, August 31, 2008

We had several antique kerosene lamps in our Lucknow house. They were obtained from the palaces of the Nawabs where they were not meant for d├ęcor but for every day use. In our house their function was purely decorative. When my parents had parties, the lamps were lit and the muted glow of the flame through the ancient frosted glass was the only lighting in the house. I remember being awed by the beauty of the house on these occasions. It was a rich, warm beauty and I would wrap myself up in it while I sat alone and bored with endless adult conversation and seemingly useless laughter. I never could understand why the grown ups would carry on a deep, profound conversation and then burst into loud helpless laughter. What was the joke?!

On the eve of one such party, my mother discovered that we had run out of kerosene. She was wondering how she could procure some when the doorbell rang. It was our antique dealer. He told my mother that had a very strong feeling that we might need kerosene. He was carrying a can of kerosene to give us. He did not actually sell kerosene, so this was not part of his stock nor did he make any money from the kerosene.

My mother was taken aback and she told him that she did actually need the kerosene.
Many years later when my mother was recollecting this strange event, she said the fakir must have been behind it. She was only half joking.

Friday, August 22, 2008

My father was obsessed with collecting and making furniture. Very often I would see carpenters working endlessly on a sofa set, a cupboard or some other heavy and extremely ugly furniture. They were made to work in an open shed that faced the front garden. My father took great pride in being a slave driver. The carpenters had to work relentlessly and must have been poorly paid, I am sure.

One October a carpenter who had been working on restoring a bed that had been brought down from Mussorie walked up to my mother and said that he had enough and he was leaving that evening even if he did not get paid and the work was incomplete. My mother’s first thought was that my father was the reason he wanted to quit.It was not unusual. It was well known that no one could work for my father for very long. His temper was famous. He was well known all over Lucknow for his rage and people were terrified of him.

On being questioned he said that he was very afraid to work in our house because of the Baba who lived in the compound. He claimed that every evening he would see an old man in long white robes walking in the orchard. The carpenter said that he looked life a fakir. This fakir appeared to do nothing in particular but the carpenter was very intimidated by the way the he would look at him. This fakir never spoke and behaved as if people around him did not exist.

My mother who was used to the strangest reasons for staff leaving the job laughed this one off and told the carpenter that she would speak to ‘saheb’ to increase his pay, if that is why he wanted to leave. The carpenter refused and insisted that he was very afraid that the Baba would cast a spell on him and he felt that even another day in the house would doom him.

Naturally it was of no use telling him that there was no Baba. My mother suspected that he might have been on some kind of drug and the Baba was a hallucination. To convince the carpenter that there was no Baba my mother called the gardener and told him to talk to the carpenter.

“But Memsahib, there is a Baba in the orchard. He is a very nice Baba and I do puja to him every day. He is very kind and his blessings are with me always”.

The carpenter never came back and my mother’s interrogation of the gardener resulted in nothing but a repeated insistence of the existence of the Baba.

This was the beginning of a series of very strange events that my mother experienced first hand.

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My mother had given Badi Bi the cook a week long holiday. A few days later my father announced that he was calling his politician friends over for lunch and he expected a good North Indian spread. Imagine trying to feed and please pot bellied self obsessed old men! My mother could make the most wonderful cakes and bakes but she struggled to make Indian food those days. Now she was in a real fix. It was no use reminding my father that Badi Bi was on leave and preparing the kind of food he was expecting was impossible. He simply did not care. It had to be done. This was the order he gave in the morning and the spread had to be ready by noon.

My mother despaired and wished that Badi Bi would somehow come back. A hopeless wish for Badi Bi was several hours away from Lucknow.It was only the third day of her leave. I cannot imagine what my mother must have gone through. My father’s temper spared no one. Not even her.

At ten that morning the door bell rang and my mother opened the door to a breathless Badi Bi. Very agitated she puffed and panted as she asked my mother if everything was all right. The moment she was told Memsahib wanted her back immediately, she came rushing. Why had Memsahib sent for her? My mother was very surprised and told her about the lunch. “But Badi Bi, how did you know I needed you, I just wished that you were here, I did not send for you”, she said.

“But Memsahib, a fakir came to my house and told me to go back immediately because you needed me and you had sent him to call me. He told me that it was very urgent and I must leave right away.” she said.

My mother had no explanation for what happened. My father got his spread and was well pleased and none the wiser.

The mysterious fakir became a fairy godmother as my mother found out fulfilling even the most fleeting wish she had.
The house I grew up in was haunted, that’s what all the servants would say. They would tell me that long ago, before any house was built, that area was a village and before that it was a forest through which the British troops would pass.

I would always be awed by the fact that the house and the land around it was large enough to fit a village and before that a forest. The loss of both would make me feel sad. Who had destroyed the forest to make way for the village and who had destroyed the village to make way for the house and its unending grounds?

I would often dig about in the garden hoping to find some treasure left behind by a soldier or a villager. The gardener told me that if I dug deep enough, I would probably find the skeleton of a British soldier and I would know it for sure because he would still have his helmet on.

Although we had a fairly large house keeping staff, none of them would take up the offer to stay in the quarters provided for them. The servant quarters were on one side of an orchard and to me they seemed very tempting. I would spend many hours there with my books, dogs and imaginary friends. I had the pick of fruits to eat and rooms to invade and laze in.

No servant would stay there because they said that in the evenings you could see lamps burning outside the doors and windows of the quarters. This story had been handed down generations of servants and nobody ventured there after dark, except my mother who would take that path for her evening walks. She never saw any lamps but the gardener told her it was because she was a “devi” and the spirits would not harm her.

However, when I was perhaps 6 years old, a cook and his wife came to stay there. Knowing nothing about the lamps and not really caring when they were told, they settled in happily. I was delighted because I always got a snack or a very spicy curry to eat when I went to play there. I was given this secretly because it was always between meals and always loaded with so many green chilies that had my mother known she would have disapproved.

Nearly three years later something happened. The cook, Duli Chand, told my parents that it was his duty to report what had happened the night before.

It was a moonless night, Duli Chand and his wife were sleeping outside, in the portico of their quarters. After midnight Duli chand thought he heard his name being called. He woke up and far down the orchard he saw a man who was wearing white kurta- payjama calling out his name. The voice was deep and menacing. He repeatedly asked Duli Chand to come towards him. When Duli Chand got up to go him, he apparently disappeared.

Duli chand was very shaken by this incident but he assured my parents that he was not the kind to get scared and that if he had God to protect him, he would fear no one human or non human.

Two months after this incident Duli Chand died. He did not have any medical problems. He developed a cough a fortnight before and that turned into a lung infection which he did not survive.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

School stories……

My boarding school would take in students throughout the year. One day an Italian boy joined school. He was blond with curly ringlets falling into his eyes. His smile held a thousand promises of mischief and mayhem. He spoke only in Italian and this made all the girls want to teach him English. He was chased by us through the school corridors, accosted in the dining hall and smuggled into classrooms during free periods. A smile from him or a word spoken by him, especially if it was a recently taught English word was all that was needed to make our day.

He was only three when he joined school. His parents wanted him to get used to India, especially Indian food. In the first year he did not need to attend any formal classes. The headmistress would make him sit in her office for an hour and teach him English. For the rest of the day he was free to do whatever he liked. A lot of his time was spent in the dining hall and rice and rasam soon became a favourite with him.

When he was not eating, he would go from class to class, peep in and smile. Then he would stand and wait for us to squeal in delight and call out to him. Sometimes he was met with absolute silence and no amount of waving and smiling would help. He would then step in and in a flash disappear when he saw who the teacher in class was. Most of the time it was the math teacher. Even he knew that math teachers are a terrifying species that all children should keep well away from.

One February when we were studying for the tenth grade preliminary exams he ran past our class. We had a free period then and he was immediately caught and dragged into class. He was delighted to discover that this was the class of his friend who had an endless supply of scented colourful erasers. She sat down on the floor with him and spread out her treasure. Soon we all were pretending we were in a forest and on a mission to ambush and kill enemy soldiers. Compasses made deadly weapons and the dismembered bits of eraser flesh made a little blond general very proud.

We lost track of time. Suddenly a classmate ran up to us breathless. The bell had rung, did we not hear it? Now the Sanskrit teacher was on her way to class and it was too late to send him out. He was trapped. Quickly through frenzied gestures and broken English we told him that he had to hide and wait till he was told to come out. The enemy had got powerful and he could get killed. We more or less threw him into a gigantic carton box and threw in bits of paper and anything else that we thought would serve as a camouflage.

Within seconds we were back in our places and the classroom was completely silent. The teacher, as she entered must have felt proud. Here was a class that was serious about doing well.

Minutes ticked by. Someone coughed. Then someone else. Soon coughs were answered by many other coughs. Someone sneezed. Two girls hid under their bench, buried their heads into their skirts and laughed.

The teacher looked up and a subtle change in her expression that we all knew so well made us quiet for a while. Then the coughing began again. One brave girl asked to be allowed to go to the restroom. She barely made it outside class before she fell down laughing.

The teacher was very annoyed now but there was nothing she could do. It was winter, coughs and sniffles were normal. A weak attempt at asking what was going on was answered with a wide eyed innocent “Nothing Miss!” But she knew something was wrong. It frustrated her. Her hands itched to punish. It was torture not to be able to do anything. There right under her nose we were clearly laughing at her and she could do nothing. Nothing until…..

Out he popped, the little Jack in the Box. “I’m hungry!” he wailed, the only fluent sentence he knew in English, with perfect pronunciation.

For a few moments nothing happened. The teacher had frozen. Her mouth was open and a hundred expressions all competing to get out had frozen with her. Even he remained in the box, eyes wide, and his body ready to bolt on cue. We waited. Still. We were seconds away. Then it came. A torrent of fury.

She had never seen such a shameless class she said. Hiding boys in class, whatever would we do next? It is not good for girls to talk to boys, did we not know that? So shameless she said, she would tell the headmistress. This was what we were doing when the exams were so near. Did we want to bring disgrace to our families? How could we do this being students of such an institution? We were just like the girls from the bad “outside” world. Here our parents had sent us to learn good values and this is how we were letting them down.

Meanwhile he continued standing in the box with his eyes growing wider and wider. He was very scared. Finally she turned to him and told him to get out. He did not need to know English for that, he ran out but not before yelling rudely at her.

For about a month we were the talk of the staff room and the teachers made it a point to tell the other classes not to follow our bad example. The headmistress threatened with expulsion any girl who was caught talking or even looking at the little three year old charmer.